Countries Can More Safely Reopen Schools If Adults Limit Their Social Activities, Says WHO
(left-right) Mike Ryan, Dr Tedros, Maria Van Kerkhove at the September 15 2020 WHO press briefing

Countries may be able to reopen schools safely if adults strictly observe masking and social distancing measures, and show restraint in leisure activities, said World Health Organization Health Emergencies Executive Director Mike Ryan.

“We have to reduce transmission at community level in order to lower the risk to those older and vulnerable people, and to maintain an environment in which children can continue to attend school,” Ryan told reporters on Tuesday. “The only way to do that is that the adults separate themselves enough to drive transmission downwards.

“So what is more important? Are children back in school? Or are the nightclubs and bars open? I think these are the decisions that we have to make coming into the winter months.”

Ryan’s comments came as WHO, UNCESCO, and UNICEF released updated guidelines for policymakers to consider when deciding the safest way to reopen schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Keeping children safe and at school is not a job for schools alone, or governments alone or families alone. It’s a job for all of us, working together,” added WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“With the right combination of measures, we can keep our kids safe and teach them that health and education are two of the most precious commodities in life,” he said.

More Research Into COVID-19 Effects in Children is Required

Since the start of the pandemic, understanding how the virus affects children has been a top priority, said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

But “nine months into the pandemic, many questions remain,” he added.

It’s clear so far that children seem to be spared the worst of the virus, with comparatively fewer children than adults getting infected or experiencing severe illness. Less than 10% of reported cases and less than 0.2% of deaths are in people under the age of 20, according to the WHO. However, there have been reports of specific rare COVID-19-related complications in children, and it’s still unclear what role children play in the virus’ spread.

And WHO COVID-19 Technical Lead Maria Van Kerkhove admitted that they were still learning about the “role that schools are playing” in transmission. It is suspected younger children transmit the virus less than adolescents.

Taking public health measures such as ensuring desks are properly spaced, or all students and staff wear masks may help reduce transmission.

However, the key to ensuring safe school reopenings is to make sure that “transmission is under control in the community,” said Van Kerkhove.

Staying Out Of School Has Devastating Effects On Children

The decision to close schools in the wake of COVID-19 outbreaks was a “last resort,” Dr Tedros said. But as the fall semester begins, many countries are struggling with the decision to reopen schools, or pursue distance learning opportunities.

However, half of the global student population is still not yet back in school, said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.

A recent UNICEF survey of 158 countries found that 1 in 4 countries have not put a date in place for allowing children back to the classroom, added Fore. And for at least 463 million children whose schools closed in the spring due to the coronavirus, remote learning was never a feasible option. Some 11 million children are at risk of never being able to return to school, most of them being girls.

Schools represent a safe haven for many students, and students from disadvantaged backgrounds often also rely on schools for healthcare and meals, according to UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.

“Supporting the safe reopening of schools must be a priority. In particular, supporting the return of the most disadvantaged. And while this return to school is crucial, it must be done in a safe manner,” said Azulay.

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